Teen Seeking Help for 48 Year-Old Aunt

Reader’s Question

A: I’m 17 years old, and I really need your help. Well, my family and I need your help. My aunt is 48 years old and her life is a mess. It began when she was 30 with her divorce and an unexpected pregnancy.

I wasn’t there when she got divorced but just seeing pictures of her before you can see how much happier she was. After the divorce she had to move from her apartment and went back to living with my grandparents (her parents), who live in a different country. Not only was she depressed from getting divorced but she had to go back to living with her parents, get a new job, and basically start all over again. I understand that for some people it could take them 5 years or longer to go on with their lives, but it’s been 18 years and my aunt is right where she started. She’s still living with her parents, no husband/boyfriend, and without a steady job. Since the divorce she hasn’t had a single boyfriend and she’s been changing jobs continuously. The sad thing is that she got married during her 20´s and before that my grandparents didn’t have enough money to send her to university so instead she worked in small jobs until she got married. Due to her lack of education she could never get a good, steady job after her divorce and with a son she was always busy taking care of him.

Overall my aunt has had a stressful, hard life and her depression from after the divorce has never left but rather kept getting worse. Like many people who get depressed and overeat so did she, and eventually started gaining more and more weight to the point she stopped caring about the way she looked and just completely forgot about herself. Everyone in my family has tried helping by offering her small jobs, helping with her son, etc. but she has never tried hard enough and never accepted the fact that she’s depressed and needs help. How do we help her get her life back together? She’s getting older and with that it’s getting harder and harder to get her back on her feet. How can we take action without hurting her feelings? What are some of the first steps to helping her realize she has a problem?

Psychologist’s Reply

Strong emotional reactions are very common following a divorce. For the majority of individuals, they experience a disorganization in their life, go through a depression, and eventually reorganize and rebuild their life. This is also a pattern found in severe trauma, accident/injury, work-related injuries, and even job loss. People typically have a bad experience, pass through it, recover and move on. In a small percentage of cases however, the recovery is partial or doesn’t happen at all.

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In theory, your aunt probably experienced a severe depression following the divorce. The depression made it impossible for her to work or care for her child — prompting her to return to live with her mother. Living with her mother then became comfortable and she began to organize her life around that living situation rather than returning to independent living, dating, etc. This often happens when the severe symptoms of depression fade away but many of the other symptoms remain.

Living for years with moderate depression, your aunt has developed a depression lifestyle. No motivation, no self-confidence, dependent upon others, a high tolerance for a dependent life… What’s difficult from a family viewpoint is that she is now comfortable being dependent. If we think about it, all the things we encourage her to do require a lot of effort on her part. Sadly, she may not be that uncomfortable about her situation. Family intervention may also be complicated by your grandmother’s involvement. Your grandmother may actually want her to stay — having someone to talk to, cook with, etc. Family interventions won’t work unless everyone supports the attempt to change.

What do we do in these situations? Any attempt to greatly increase her independent living skills will immediately fail — she’s actually invested in remaining dependent. Instead, we develop gradual steps to build the skills she needs for independent living. First, you might focus on her health, weight, and appearance. Next, work on improving the quality of the life she has now, including such things as part-time jobs, getting out of the house more, hobbies/activities that build self-esteem. Improving her self-esteem increases the chances she will be motivated to improve her life in several areas. Third, focus on her “Living with” rather than being “Dependent Upon” her mother. The idea is to make her operate like a roommate rather than dependent adult child in the home. She can pay rent or do chores in exchange for her situation. Lastly, when she begins talking about moving out — the family organizes a full effort with moving help, encouragement, etc. Exactly as you describe, your aunt’s in a deep hole — socially and emotionally. She’ll need to climb out step by step.

If this approach is unsuccessful, an alternative approach is to accept that she is dependent yet will eventually be alone in the family home, following the death of her parents. Given that situation, the family should encourage her to establish support links in the community. In the United States for example, we consider enrollment with Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to provide minimal funding and medical support in anticipation of her future situation. Preparing for this future reality is often motivating.

By the way, your family is fortunate to have such a mature niece who at 17 seeks information to help the family deal with such a situation. Have you considered a career in psychology?

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